The University’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman earlier this week requesting a meeting to discuss lifting the current ban on political campaigning in residence halls in advance of the midterm elections this coming November.
Under current University Housing policy, students are prohibited from canvassing for political candidates in the residence halls without prior approval. As it stands, if students are found doing so, they can be charged with criminal trespassing and may be barred from entering all residence halls. This policy also extends to student organizations, which face fines at an amount determined by the University for the same offense.
The letter the ACLU sent to Coleman — which was a collaboration between the ACLU of Michigan, the University’s undergraduate chapter of ACLU, the University Law School chapter of ACLU and the Washtenaw County ACLU — requests that canvassing in the residence halls be allowed as an avenue through which students may express their political opinions.
“Public universities should be places where students are encouraged to engage in the political process and where protection of the free exchange of ideas is at its zenith,” the letter states.
As of yesterday, University officials had not yet responded to the ACLU’s letter, according to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. He said he couldn’t give an exact time for when administrators will respond to the proposal.
Bennett Stein, a board member for the University’s ACLU chapter, said in an interview yesterday that the group decided to send the letter because “every student has rights and they should not lose those rights when they decide to live in the dorms.”
University Housing’s policy on advertising and soliciting states that only “elected officials, candidates for public or student office and non-partisan activities involving voter registration are permitted to go door-to-door in residence halls, with permission from the Housing Administration Office,” according to the University Housing website.
The University has this policy to allow for an atmosphere that is “conducive to studying, resting, relaxing and socializing,” according to the website.
During the 2008 elections, members of the University’s chapter of College Democrats were prohibited from going door-to-door in residence halls in order to register students to vote. But after the group complained that this policy was unconstitutional, the University modified the policy by allowing members of the organization to canvass in their own residence halls, according to Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan.
“But (the University hasn’t) changed the written rules,” Steinberg said.
Neither the College Democrats nor the College Republicans are currently involved in the ACLU’s initiative but the chairs of both organizations said they support it.
“There is nothing more important to a free, democratic society than free expression — chief among which is political speech,” Brendan Campell, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said.
Charles Bogren, co-chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, shared similar sentiments regarding the policy.
“It is important because people should have the opportunity to be involved in the political process,” Bogren said. “I think it’s important because a lot of times college is the first time people really have the opportunity to learn more about the political process and really develop their opinions.”
The letter sent to Coleman also points out that University Housing recently sent an e-mail to residents stating specific times that Michigan Student Assembly and LSA Student Government candidates will be allowed to campaign in the residence halls.
According to the March 12 e-mail, students running for MSA and LSA-SG positions and their campaign managers are allowed to canvass in the residence halls from March 14 to March 21 from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The ACLU letter states that this could be an indication that the University will adopt a similar policy next semester in regards to the midterm congressional elections by allowing only candidates and their campaign managers to canvass in the residence halls.
Steinberg said that if the University chooses to adopt ACLU’s policy proposal, the ACLU will be open to negotiations on the policy, including the time students would be able to canvass in the dorms. He also said ACLU student members would stay clear of residence hall doors that have “no campaigning” signs.